Rita Dove 1980
This poem was published in Dove’s first complete book of poems, The Yellow House on the Corner, in 1980. “This Life,” like several other poems in the same collection, grapples with the problem of fantasy versus reality. The speaker sees that “the possibilities” in this life may be impossible, “like golden dresses in a nutshell.” As a child, the speaker relates, she “fell in love / with a Japanese woodcut / of a girl gazing at the moon.” Further, the speaker confesses, “I waited with her for her lover.” Her identification with the imaginary girl is so complete that even now, in this life, the speaker associates the imaginary lover with her present lover: “he had / your face, though I didn’t know it.” Finally, the speaker concludes that her life and her lover’s “will be the same,” and that she will remain “a stranger in this desert,” this life, though she will continue to try to attain the impossible, “nursing the tough skin of figs.”
This poem may also be portraying the difficulty of being a woman, with certain emotional and romantic needs, as symbolized by the image of the moon, in a society dominated by men. In the first stanza, the speaker addresses an unidentified second person when she says, “You tell me the same thing / as that one, / asleep, upstairs.” Later, the speaker reveals that this “you” is her lover or husband. The rest of the passage may be a reference to her father or to the cultural concept of a male god, who is “asleep, upstairs.” Either way, the meaning is the same—the reality of this life can never measure up to her fantasy of a world of possibilities
more abundant than this desert, which only produces nuts and figs with tough skins.
Born in 1952 in Akron, Ohio, to well-educated parents, Dove is the daughter of Ray A. Dove, the first African-American chemist to break the racial barrier in the tire and rubber industry, and the former Elvira Elizabeth Hord. An excellent student, Dove was invited to the White House in 1970 as a Presidential Scholar, ranking nationally among the best high school students of the graduating class of that year. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University of Ohio in 1973—where she had enrolled as a National Achievement Scholar—and graduated summa cum laude. The following year, Dove studied at West Germany’s Tubingen University as a Fulbright scholar. This led to further studies at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There she met her husband, the German-born writer and journalist Fred Viebahn. In addition to her other achievements, which include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dove holds the distinction of having been the first African American, as well as the youngest individual, to hold the post of United States Poet Laureate, a position she held from 1993 to 1995. Dove lives with her husband and daughter in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Professor of English at the University of Virginia Commonwealth.
The green lamp flares on the table.
You tell me the same thing
as that one,
Now I see: the possibilities
are like golden dresses in a nutshell.
As a child, I fell in love
with a Japanese woodcut
of a girl gazing at the moon.
I waited with her for her lover.
He came in white breeches and sandals.
He had a goatee—he had
your face, though I didn’t know it.
Our lives will be the same—
your lips, swollen from whistling
and I a stranger
in this desert,
nursing the tough skin of figs.
At first glance, this opening line seems to be a simple, declarative sentence, but the images suggest several other possibilities. The green lamp could be a camping lantern—something one takes to illuminate the darkness of the natural world. But this is “on the table,” so even if it is intended to be used outside, this lamp is inside. The fact that it “flares” by itself may suggest a flare-up of anger, or it may foreshadow self-enlightenment, or it may suggest something ominous in this scene.
In the second line, the speaker introduces a second unidentified person, who tells the speaker “the same thing / as that one, / asleep, upstairs.” Here, a third unidentified person is mentioned. The tone is restrained and guarded. This person could be the speaker’s father, or it could refer to the cultural concept of a male god, who is distant and unaware of her plight. In lines 5 and 6, the speaker already has reached a conclusion based on evidence that is hidden
- A video cassette titled Bill Moyers Journal: Poet Laureate Rita Dove was released in 1994 by Films for the Humanities.
- A video cassette titled Shine Up Your Words: A Morning With Rita Dove was released in 1994 by Virginia Center for the Book.
- A video cassette titled Color: A Sampling of Contemporary African-American Writers was released in 1994 by The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives.
- A Conversation With Poet Laureate Rita Dove, a video cassette from Real Earth Productions, was released in 1993.
- An audio cassette titled “Selected Poems of Rita Dove” is available from Audiobooks.
- “Rita Dove: Selected Poems” was released on audio cassette in 1993 by Random House Audio.
from us. What she sees is that “the possibilities” in this life are as restricted and impossible as “golden dresses in a nutshell.” This image also may suggest that what is important to her has been relegated to a minuscule and inaccessible place, and that life is hard.
In this section of the poem, the speaker relates a childhood experience of falling “in love / with a Japanese woodcut / of a girl gazing at the moon.” This image suggests an exotic, feminine ideal of romantic love. The speaker has identified with the imaginary girl, and has “waited with her for her lover.” And, in the speaker’s memory of the woodcut, “He came in white breeches and sandals,” an image of pure romantic love, a savior. But in the next two lines, the speaker fuses her memory of the childhood fantasy with her present reality. The lover in the woodcut “had a goatee—he had / your face, though I didn’t know it.” The speaker wants to believe that her present relationship has been fated. The image of the “goatee” seems to suggest betrayal or something evil.
In this final section of the poem, the speaker is again brought back to the reality of her situation—their “lives will be the same.” He will continue to be ineffective in protecting her in this life—his lips will be “swollen from whistling / at danger”—and the speaker will remain “a stranger / in this desert, / nursing the tough skin of figs.” So, even though she realizes that nothing will really happen to make this life more bearable, she continues to try to nurture “the tough skin” of this male-dominated desert of a life.
Limitations and Opportunities
The moon represents opportunity in this poem, that unknown future which one always assumes will bring better things. To the speaker of this poem, as well as to the girl in the woodcut, this opportunity would be fulfilled by the arrival of a handsome and brave lover. This was the childhood dream of the speaker, but we can see in the first stanza that the faith and enthusiasm that were at the core of the dream have diminished to almost nothing. The speaker of the poem realizes that possibilities exist and that they are valuable and beautiful—they are “golden dresses”—but from the perspective of adulthood, with all of its struggle and responsibility, these possibilities are miniature, small enough to fit inside of a nutshell. In using the word “this,” the poem’s very title tips the reader off to the speaker’s feeling of frustration, making the point that she is bothered about having to live this particular life and not a better one.
It could be argued easily that most of the speaker’s disappointment is already evident in the very nature of her dream: that she was destined from childhood to have her possibilities limited. Her young self was not even looking for opportunities in her own life, but in the life of the girl in the woodcut. She was not responding to her own environment, so it is natural that her real life would not match her dreams. The similarities that are stated between the real lover and the one that she imagined coming to the Japanese girl—with sandals, a beard, and a casual attitude toward danger—are not the qualities that ensure a strong adult relationship. As it turned out, the lover that this speaker did pick is not actually the salvation that she had hoped for: to her, he seems like a child, talking like “that one, / asleep, upstairs.” This family has limited the possibilities that the speaker once saw for herself, in the way that hard reality will always limit the open possibilities of dreams.
The end of this poem gives us an image of the speaker out in the desert, which is known as a place where no other humans are around and the harsh weather is dangerous to human existence. It is a curious way to portray the life of someone who feels herself to be trapped in the middle of her family. We would not expect this character to feel alone, especially not to feel such total isolation. In suggesting that this woman’s life could be a desert wilderness, the poem appears to be giving a bleak look at human relations, indirectly telling us that humans cannot form relationships but instead are doomed to isolation.
But harsh and barren as the desert is, it also has a history of being a proving ground, a place that one emerges from as a better person for having suffered the difficulties of desert life. Among Bible stories, two of the most prominent are those of Moses leading the Israelites away from slavery and across the desert and of Jesus spending forty days alone in the desert, freeing himself from the distractions of the world. This poem does not give us any indication that its speaker intends to some day emerge triumphantly from her metaphorical desert, but it could well be offering us a glimmer of hope for her future, provided that the “figs” at the end represent the speaker’s spouse and child. This would make sense because the figs’ “tough skin” is consistent with the man’s swollen lips and casual attitude toward danger, and the child thinks like the man, as mentioned in lines 2 through 5. Under this interpretation, the speaker’s act of nursing is an investment, an affirmation that life will not always be a harsh desert, for the others if not for herself. It is a difficult job; the skin is so tough that they will not appreciate her nursing, but it at least has her more involved with life than she was as a child, staring at a picture and making up lives.
Art and Experience
It is interesting to note that the speaker of this poem does not look with disappointment upon a dream that she dreamt for herself, but on a dream that she had for the girl in the Japanese woodcut. As described, the only details that the picture provided her with were the moon and the girl who
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem in which you imagine yourself a participant in a painting that you are familiar with, as Dove does in the second stanza. Describe your interactions with the people in the picture, and with people who live in the picture’s world.
- Write a short paper explaining all that you can guess about the person referred to as “that one, / asleep, upstairs.”
- Explain the significance of the colors mentioned in this poem.
stared at it: it was the poem’s speaker who decided that she was waiting for a lover, and then went on to imagine a description for the lover. If a work of art is meant for a viewer to identify with, then this woodcut did its job almost too well. The poem’s speaker fell so in love with the scene that it became a part of her real life. The absent lover that her imagination provided for the girl turned out to match her own eventual lover. For her to meet someone years later who looked like someone she had once imagined would seem an amazing coincidence, a supernatural premonition, or an indication that this speaker bends her perception of reality in order to match her fantasy. The imagery in this poem indicates a fertile mind—”golden dresses in a nutshell,” “this desert,” “the tough skin of figs”—but this creative mind finds no beauty or happiness when examining her own experiences. It is only when refracting this creativity through the suggestions made by someone else’s artistic creation that she shows such inventiveness herself.
“This Life” is written in free verse. This means that the poem uses no set pattern of meter, and that there is no rhyme scheme. The poem is divided into two stanzas: one of six lines, and the other of thirteen lines. The poet has chosen where to break the lines,
Compare & Contrast
- 1980: Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk, led by Lech Walesa, went on strike in defiance of the Communist authorities, which eventually led to the formation of the independent Solidarity union. Moscow, fearing that this act of independence might spread to other countries in the Soviet Union, sent troops to intimidate the labor movement.
1990: After losing heavily to Solidarity candidates in Congressional elections, the Polish Communist party voted to disband itself. Lithuania was the first of the republics in the Soviet Union to declare itself independent, leading to the downfall of Communism in eastern Europe.
Today: Many of the countries formerly in the Soviet Union have aligned themselves with the West and become members of NATO.
- 1980: The United States Supreme Court ruled that a man-made life form could be patented. The case in question involved a genetically engineered bacterium created to break down crude oil after oil spills.
Today: Genetically engineered vegetables are commonly available in grocery stores; mammals have also been cloned.
creating the poem’s own unique accents and rhythms. Where a line ends with a period, it is called end stopped; where a line flows on to the next line, it is called enjambed.
Critic Nelson Hathcock, writing in Critical Survey of Poetry, says: “Poems in The Yellow House On The Corner often depict the collision of wish with reality, of heart’s desire with the dictates of the world. This collision is made tolerable by the working of the imagination, and the result is, for Dove, ’magic,’ or the existence of an unexplainable occurrence. It is imagination and the art it produces that allow the speaker in ’This Life’ to see that ’the possibilities / are golden dresses in a nutshell.’ ’Possibilities’ have the power to transform this life into something distinct and charmed.”
Critic Robert McDowell, writing in Callaloo, remarks that in “This Life” and other poems Dove “echoes, distorts, and revises ancient myths.” Critic Arnold Rampersad, writing in Callaloo notes that “Dove insists on a more austere governance of intimacy than many poets, and most people, are willing to concede.”
B. J. Bolden is an Assistant Professor of English at Chicago State University, Chicago, IL. She is the managing editor of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature and Ideas at Chicago State University and the author of Urban Rage in Bronzeville: Social Commentary in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945-1960. In the following essay, Bolden reads “This Life” as a poem about memory, offering “a contrast of the then and the now.”
“This Life” is the opening poem of Rita Dove’s first full-length book of poetry, The Yellow House on the Corner, which was based upon her master’s thesis. Part one of the book is a retrospective account of random characters and incidents that occupied places in “in the old neighborhood,” as suggested by a poem from the same section, “Teach us to Number Our Days.” Other poems of the volume that support the theme of neighborhood include “The Bird Frau,” “Small Town,” and “Sightseeing.” In the poem “This Life,” Dove is concerned about memory: how present reality plays out against past expectations. The anonymous, first-person narrator reflects over the direction her life has taken and considers how different that life is from its adolescent promise.
The narrator’s reverie begins as she is lured into a hypnotic trance of remembrance while “the green lamp flares on the table.” The green light functions as the symbolic beacon of her youth that beckoned her forth to life’s myriad opportunities. The speaker makes an abrupt entrance into the poem; she immediately addresses the person who initiated her thoughts, and speaks to him in a sardonic tone: “You tell me the same thing / as that one, / asleep, upstairs.” The speaker has no discernible affinity either to the “You” she is addressing, or to “that one” who, unmindful of her restless thoughts and perhaps insomnia, is mindlessly “asleep, upstairs,” while she, alone, wrestles with the reality of her unfulfilled life. As contrasted to someone telling her about the disenchantments one must face as an adult versus childhood fantasies, the narrator has come to grips with the reality of her life on her own terms. Now she sees that although the potential for a rich, happy life might have been available to her as a young woman, those possibilities were as precious and rare as “golden dresses in a nutshell.” The air is heavy with her disenchantment and resignation. For now, the narrator suggests, it is too late for her to realize the golden promises of her youth.
Suddenly, the narrator makes a retrospective shift to a pivotal scene from her childhood. There is a sense of reflective calm as her musings focus on the object that stimulated her early fantasies: “As a child, I fell in love / with a Japanese woodcut / of a girl gazing at the moon.” Unresolved longing lingers and winds itself around the word “gazing,” as though locked in a temporal embrace of desire that is not a mere glance nor a look. As the speaker watches the girl in the picture, she creates an idealistic romantic fantasy of a free-spirited lover who blithely enters in loose, soft, billowy “white breeches”; open, unrestricted “sandals,” and a “goatee.” In essence, the speaker creates a lover whose attire epitomizes her sense of male beauty, though at that time “[she] didn’t know it.”
Lines spill over into meaningful enjambment as the speaker realizes that her creation of a dream man became her own real life fantasy: “he had / your face, though I didn’t know it.” This epiphany shifts the narrator from the deep recesses of memory to the bright light of reality, as she contrasts the “green lamp” of her early opportunities to the “desert” of her present existence. In the newness of her reality, she knows that the man she addresses will continue to court the dangers of an adventurous life that separates the two of them, and she, alone in the spareness of her life, will continue
What Do I Read Next?
- A good recent collection that includes poems by Dove is The Woman That I Am: The Literature and Culture of Contemporary Women of Color(1994), edited by D. Soyini Madison. This collection includes poetry, essays, and fiction by American women of various ethnicities.
- In the fiction of Alice Walker we can see a resemblance to Dove’s themes and the tough-minded attitudes of her characters. The short stories in Walker’s book You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, published in 1981, present a good introduction to her work.
- Virginia King, the protagonist in Dove’s 1987 novel Through the Ivory Gate, is much like the speaker of this poem in the way she sees the world. This book offers a full range of experiences and emotions that are approached with the same resolve shown in “This Life.”
- This poem is concerned with how reality challenges a woman’s sense of her self. One of the greatest works ever written about the roles that society assigns to women is French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’ s The Second Sex, first published in 1952 and most recently reprinted in 1989 by Vintage. This book takes a cool, analytical look at the social forces that were true in the 1950s, were true when “This Life” was written and are true today.
to seek emotional nourishment from a seemingly impossible life source: “the tough skins of figs.”
The poem “This Life” is about evolution, a contrast of the then and the now. The speaker has made a journey from the bright innocence of youth to the sober reality of maturity. Unaware that the romantic images of her youth were the golden promises available to the young, she reaches adulthood stymied and unfulfilled by not having explored life’s opportunities. Dove enhances her theme of life as an emotional and psychological journey with the subtle injection of the images of memory. History becomes a ruling motif as the speaker arrives at the realization that it is “This” present life, not “that” past life with which she must seek reconciliation. Color imagery plays a pivotal role in the subtle suggestion of vision and freedom of movement in the “green lamp”; caution, limitation, and restriction in the yellow light of “golden dresses in a nutshell”; and the subliminal red light of danger and unfulfilled dreams in the “lips, swollen from whistling / at danger.”
The line lengths in the middle of the first and third stanzas define the restrictions that the speaker has permitted to be imposed upon her present life, even in the face of the unlimited possibilities available to her in adolescence. Dove’s compressed language augments the feelings of disenchantment and limitation that permeate the poem and the life of the speaker. Tight control of language and imagery demand the active participation of the reader to discern meaning, as in the line “Our lives will be the same.” Though the poem is metrically varied, the accents lean toward iambic tetrameter in the full lines, where meaning is most discernible, while the dimeter of the shorter, compressed lines defines the constrains and limitations of the speaker’s life.
Dove’s success in the poem is the emotional distance she employs to tell the story of personal loss. Her tone is objective, even aloof, even as she conveys the sadness of unfulfilled dreams. Because Dove exercises such tight control over her subject and uses an economy of words, her terse, compressed language challenges meaning, yet still manages to invite speculation on the freshness and brevity of youthful optimism against the pragmatic resignation of adult survival.
Source: B.J. Bolden, in an essay for Poetry for student, Gale, 1997.
“Rita Dove,” in Current Biography Yearbook, edited by Judith Graham, H. W. Wilson, 1994, pp. 143-47.
Hathcock, Nelson, “Rita Dove,” in Critical Survey of Poetry, Magill, 1991, pp. 954-61.
McDowell, Robert, “The Assembling Vision of Rita Dove,” in Callaloo, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1986, pp. 52-70.
Rampersad, Arnold, “The Poems of Rita Dove,” in Callaloo, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1986, pp. 52-60.
Schneider, Steven, “Rita Dove: An Interview,” in The Iowa Review, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1989, pp. 112-23.
Taleb-Khyar, Mohamed B., “An Interview with Maryse Conde and Rita Dove,” in Callaloo, 1991, pp. 347-66.
Ashworth, Debora, “Madonna or Witch: Women’s Muse in Contemporary American Poetry,” Women’s Culture: The Women’s Renaissance in the Seventies, edited by Gayle Kimball, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1981.
The author of this piece doesn’t directly address Dove’s poem, but she gives a good examination of how the conflicting roles of fighting and comforting became crucial at the time that “This Life” was written.
Cooke’s work gives the reader a feel for literature as a form of expression at approximately the time that this poem was published because he creates an historical context. His chapter ’Tragic and Ironic Denials of Intimacy” says much about the novelists of the 1970s and 1980s that can be applied to this poem.
Russell, Sandi, Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Russell has an excellent critical eye for what makes Dove’s poetry unique among her peers, and she manages, in a few short pages, to give the reader a good sense of Dove’s philosophy and historical significance.